Wonderful young guns lift gloom
First three-in-a-row for 44 years achieved with 17-point drubbing of Kilkenny
The pall of gloom that enveloped hurling followers in the county after the Senior loss to Cork was exterminated in one glorious hour on Wednesday as a well-drilled and supremely determined Under-21 side obliterated Kilkenny with a mix of power and skill to complete a three-in-a-row of Bord Gais Energy Leinster championship titles.
Wexford 4-17 Kilkenny 1-9
To retain this hard-earned crown in front of 7,800 spectators on home soil in Innovate Wexford Park was special in itself, but to do so with such a commanding performance was even better as supporters warmed to the efforts of this fine team with every passing minute.
Only twice - in 1965 and 1987 - has the county won a Leinster final at this level by wider margins (22 and 18 points), and the gap of 17 was our biggest ever against the young Cats in a decider. And it was achieved against the backdrop of a slow and sluggish start which saw 1-1 conceded inside 80 seconds, sparking fears that the hangover from the previous Saturday night may have seeped down to the Under-21 side.
It didn't take us long to discover that this belief was totally and utterly wide of the mark though. Indeed, once Wexford settled down they proceeded to stun Kilkenny into submission by striking an unanswered 3-5 in a memorable 19-minute spell.
The crowd buzzed with anticipation every time the ball was directed towards the Wexford full-forward line at the Clonard end, and remarkably Kilkenny looked a beaten docket by the interval when they trailed by 3-8 to 1-4.
However, mindful of our neighbours' natural talent and refusal to give up no matter what the circumstances, the Wexford lads resumed with the exact same approach which had yielded such rich first-half dividends, and a fourth goal with just over three minutes gone ensured it was game, set and match.
A joyous 25 minutes followed as giddy supporters cheered every positive passage of play, happy in the knowledge that these clinical and confident young guns simply weren't going to be caught. It also gave them lots of time to think about how they would react at the final whistle but, all the same, it was still a heart-warming sight to see young supporters swarm on to the field from all angles when referee John Keenan brought a halt to proceedings.
The county was crying out for a victory after the lack of progress by the Senior team, and it goes without saying that a one-point win would have been greeted with an equal outpouring of joy.
A lot of hurt and frustration was unleashed though in this one-sided contest, and great credit is due to the Under-21 players and management for restoring the county's buzz.
There's a long time to contemplate what comes next, with the semi-final against the Ulster champions not down for decision until August 22, but one thing's for sure: Wexford will not repeat the mistake of underestimating the northern representatives after being left with egg on their faces following a similar win over Kilkenny in 2013.
And while that Leinster final win was achieved after extra-time in an edge-of-the-seat affair, it was a lot more comfortable this time around.
That didn't seem likely though when Kilkenny attacked the town end from the throw-in and corner-forward Liam Hickey goaled after a mere 13 seconds, steadying himself after being hooked to rattle the net at the second attempt.
Just over a minute later, midfielder Willie Brennan added a point from a Diarmuid Cody pass, and the visitors who were considered lucky to get past Dublin and Carlow respectively were giving the impression they had saved their best for the final.
A foul on Kevin Foley led to a steadying point from a 50-metre free by Conor McDonald, although Kilkenny hit back via Liam Blanchfield before Wexford unleashed that sensational spell of scoring which ultimately ensured that the Seán Robbins Cup was staying in the south-east for the third year running.
Kevin Foley made it 1-2 to 0-2 when he latched on to a Jim White clearance which broke off Peter Sutton and his marker, with McDonald posting the first of just three wides before the break from a free before the impressive Pádraig Foley made a timely intervention in his own square when danger loomed.
Kilkenny threatened once more in the eighth minute when the busy Willie Brennan and Kevin Kenny combined to present Chris Bolger with a clear shot on goal, but netminder Oliver O'Leary made a stunning save in what was undoubtedly a major turning point.
Wexford really grasped the initiative from that moment on, with McDonald converting another free after a foul on the impressive Cathal Dunbar before Jack O'Connor posted a truly inspiring effort. The left half-back was in outstanding form throughout, and his willingness to take the challenge to Kilkenny was clear in the tenth minute when he claimed an opposition puck-out in the air and returned it over the bar with interest (1-2 to 0-4).
McDonald fired wide from play after catching a Conor Devitt centre before equalising from a placed ball after Peter Sutton was impeded. Cathal Dunbar had the third miss in the 15th minute, but everything Wexford struck was on target in a memorable second quarter.
The lead was gained for the first time in the 16th minute when the versatile Andrew Kenny - corner-back after his introduction against Cork and right half-forward this time around - fed Conor McDonald who was about to spark utter panic in the Kilkenny full-back line.
The momentum was building, and three goals in less than seven minutes utterly transformed this contest and left Wexford brimming with self-belief. The first arrived in the 18th minute when Pádraig Foley directed a clearance straight down the middle towards McDonald and full-back Conor Delaney. The Gorey lad's sheer strength saw him shake off his immediate opponent before crashing the sliothar to the net, and it freed whatever shackles remained as Wexford played with abandon thereafter.
The stunned Cats had no time to recover before Jason Cleere lost possession under heavy pressure and McDonald handpassed to wing-forward James Cash who coolly grabbed the second goal.
It was dreamland for the long-suffering home fans who had shown admirable loyalty to turn out in such large numbers so soon after the Cork loss, and it got even better in the 24th minute when Jack O'Connor's free broke into the path of Andrew Kenny who rattled the net once more for a magical 3-6 to 1-2 lead.
Kilkenny were shell-shocked, although captain Evan Cody did manage to end their barren spell stretching for 21 minutes with a long-range point. And by the break the gap was a pleasing ten (3-8 to 1-4) as Conor McDonald pointed when a Conor Devitt cross broke off Cathal Dunbar, with Conor Martin responding from a Kilkenny free before Kevin Foley split the posts from Oliver O'Leary's puck-out.
The importance of not slackening off in any way was no doubt stressed by J.J. Doyle and company to the players who had produced that blistering half of hurling after losing the toss.
And after the two Conors, McDonald and Martin, swapped early points from frees, a simple but beautifully-worked team goal from Wexford in the 34th minute killed off any lingering suggestion of an unlikely Kilkenny comeback.
It was an unselfish move as Peter Sutton picked out James Cash who in turn passed across the square to Cathal Dunbar who really couldn't miss (4-9 to 1-5).
McDonald followed up with a brace of points, the first from a Jack O'Connor clearance and the second after a foul on the very productive Conor Devitt, before the scoring returns dropped somewhat.
However, anything that Kilkenny tried at the other end was effectively snuffed out. Netminder Oliver O'Leary was safe under the dropping ball, his defenders were tigerish in the tackle, and one of that number - Jack O'Connor - was positively brilliant as he repeatedly burst forward and delivered rousing clearances which drove followers into a frenzy.
It was 4-13 to 1-7 by the three-quarters mark, with Conor Martin (free) and substitute Seán Morrissey scoring for Kilkenny while Wexford efforts from Cathal Dunbar and Kevin Foley were sandwiched in between.
Peter Sutton also shot the first of four second-half wides with Andrew Kenny unmarked inside in the 40th minute, while Oliver O'Leary made another fine save from a Kevin Kenny shot after Diarmuid Cody supplied the pass.
Conor McDonald tapped over another free after a foul on James Cash before Liam Blanchfield and Ciarán Ryan managed a brace in reply, but Wexford finished on a high with the last three points.
The strength in depth of the squad was also underlined as Shane Murphy and Seán Kenny came off the bench to strike points on either side of another McDonald free, while positional moves saw Cathal Dunbar finish at midfield with Andrew Kenny at full-back.
It was fitting that the game should conclude with Kenny catching a Diarmuid Cody cross in his own square as Wexford remained defiant to the last.
It was a special night as the first three-in-a-row since 1969 to '71 was annexed in such style.
And now the challenge, as J.J. Doyle has outlined, is to take two more steps and deliver a first All-Ireland title in the grade since 1965. Marking the 50th anniversary in such an appropriate manner is certainly within the capabilities of these players who provided a welcome breath of fresh air with their first-rate performance.
Wexford: Oliver O'Leary; Simon Donohoe, Liam Ryan, Eoin Conroy (capt.); Jim White, Pádraig Foley, Jack O'Connor (0-1); Conor Devitt, Gavin Bailey; Andrew Kenny (1-0), Kevin Foley (0-3), James Cash (1-0); Cathal Dunbar (1-1), Conor McDonald (1-10, 0-7 frees), Peter Sutton. Subs. - Tony French for Sutton (46), Shane Murphy (0-1) for Bailey (47), Sam Kelly for Cash (51), Seán Kenny (0-1) for Ryan (57), Seán Murphy for Donohoe (59), also Luke White, Lar McDonald, Jake Firman, Billy Kelly.
Kilkenny: Darren Brennan; Evan Cody (capt., 0-1), Conor Delaney, Ciarán Wallace; Jason Cleere, Enda Morrissey, Diarmuid Cody; Paddy Deegan, Willie Brennan (0-1); Mark Mansfield, Conor Martin (0-3 frees), Liam Blanchfield (0-2); Kevin Kenny, Chris Bolger, Liam Hickey (1-0). Subs. - James Maher for Mansfield (22), Seán Morrissey (0-1) for Maher (HT), Ciarán Ryan (0-1) for W. Brennan (36), Brian Troy for Cleere (36), Tom Phelan for Kenny (53).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).